To the Moon, China!

Two years ago this coming January, President Bush announced an ambitious plan to send Americans back to the moon by as early as 2015. Now China says it wants to send unmanned probes there by 2017, with manned landings shortly after that. Is a new space race upon us?

For its part, China says no. Hu Shixiang, deputy commander of China's manned spaceflight program, told the Associated Press that his country is developing lunar capabilities independently and that competition with the U.S. isn't a factor. Maybe, but China's goals are easily as audacious as those the president outlined in early 2004.

And, like Americans, the Chinese have tasted success in reaching for the heavens. China completed its second manned spaceflight, a successful five-day orbital mission, in October. Now comes the star trek toward the moon, which will take place in stages. First up, Hu said, is mastering the technology for docking spacecraft and space walks. This step is planned to be completed by 2012.

The U.S. is on a similar pace. For example, the space shuttle is due to be permanently dry-docked by 2010 and replaced with what has been called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, with manned flights expected by 2012.

The so-called CEV is to be built by Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) . However, it will be anything but easy. Have a look at the requirements list for the project (link downloads a Word file). The good news for investors is that China's proclamation could reignite NASA's long-dormant competitive fire. And that could result in a lot more funding through the agency's Centennial Challenges program, which awards cash prizes to private industry for innovations that advance the cause of space travel. Already, the competitions have jump-started development of all sorts of far-out technologies -- including, believe it or not, space elevators. Talk about Rule Breaking.

No doubt, politicians facing record-breaking budget deficits, wars, and a gargantuan effort to rebuild in the wake of a massive human tragedy will downplay the notion of any sort of a space race. American companies, however, face no such restrictions. If they take the bait, then innovation -- and investing profits -- are sure to follow. Strap yourself in.

Reach for the stars if you'd like, but related Foolishness is right here on Earth:

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is still more of a tech geek than a space geek. But that, uh, still makes him a geek. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.

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